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As TIME Goes By

As TIME Goes By

TIME magazine changed the way we read and think about the news. As it turns 100, can it compete in the 24/7 media landscape?

John G. Rodden

On March 3, the most famous weekly magazine ever launched in America, Time, became a venerable centurion. Its remarkable history as a newsmagazine continues to this day both in print and digital versions. It may be slashed in page length, shrunken in circulation figures, reduced in advertising revenue, and publishing since 2020 only as a biweekly, but Time nonetheless marches on. Unlike its countless erstwhile kissing cousin publications—such as Life (d. 1972), Newsweek (d. 2012), and U.S. News & World Report (d. 2010)—it is still alive, still appraising events, still engaging readers.

The magazine’s co-founders, Henry Luce (1898–1967) and Briton Hadden (1898–1929), met and became friends at an elite prep school, Hotchkiss, and deepened their relationship at the Ivy League bastion Yale, where they began to fantasize about a joint venture in publishing. What emerged from their late-night dorm-room stargazing was a simple idea: to found a newsmagazine that would summarize the big stories of the week in brief reports and engaging prose.

Right from the start in 1923, Luce and Hadden showed their ingenuity. With keen insight, they devoted prominent space in their seventh month to an obscure German ex-soldier who was arrested and jailed after a failed putsch: Adolf Hitler. Sometimes they nosedived, as when they buried in a Business News section called “Aeronautics: Atlantic Events” a brief, ten- sentence story about their generational peer, twenty-five-year-old Charles A. Lindbergh. The pioneer had already become world-famous before Time subscribers received their copies. The May 30 cover instead featured King George V and Queen Mary’s tour of Spain, where they brunched on the monarch’s self-designed concoction of a pristine, well-peeled banana “ladled [with] thick orange marmalade,” eaten with a spoon, accompanied by “hot, buttered toast.”___STEADY_PAYWALL___

If Time had merely consisted of such stories, its early fate would surely have been to crash and burn. As 1927 drew to a close, however, Luce and Hadden saved the day, adroitly soaring upward at year’s end with their own inspired first: the Man of the Year Award. And why not Lindbergh for that honor? “Lucky Lindy” graced the January 2, 1928 cover (“He defeated fortune”) and with full, albeit belated, kudos earned royal—indeed classical hero—treatment. In the process, Luce and Hadden turned an oversight into a stroke of branding genius, with the guessing game Man of the Year Award (now Person of the Year) becoming firmly entrenched in American lore.

From Humble Beginnings

What started as a four-page leaflet printed in black and white on newsprint and reaching a mere nine thousand subscribers was soon to become a national sensation. By 1924–25, circulation was rising by forty thousand per year. Within a few years, it exceeded 175,000. (The trademark red border was introduced on January 3, 1927.) Time’s audience represented an attractive demographic to advertisers. Their readers were a notch above the average newspaper reader, generally well educated (or wannabe-educated), and young. They were middle class, Roaring Twenties’ men and women who were busy establishing their careers and families—and therefore valued a digest of the week’s top stories. Seventy percent of the magazine’s readers were in their forties or younger the majority had received high school diplomas and had attended college.

All this fit and fulfilled Time’s pitch in its opening issue, which announced that Americans bore no responsibility for their ignorance of current events; the sad state of the Union culturally owed merely to the fact that Time had not existed. “Americans aren’t informed because no publication has adapted itself to the time which busy men are able to spend on simply keeping informed.” This was music to the ears of hustle-and-bustle Americans on the make who wanted a smattering of knowledge that could be worn lightly (“What’s King George having for breakfast?”). It was coffee-table midcult that could be easily accessorized as part of your weekly outfit—or as an appetizer for Sunday brunch. Time’s readership responded positively to its flattering image of middle-class America and its forward-looking sensibility.

As editor, Hadden gave Time its trademark features: its Holden Caufield, avant la letter voice; its irresistibly quotable, and risible, neologisms (“tousle-haired” Lindbergh); its notorious reverse-order sentence structure. A wicked and still-quoted parody of Time by The New Yorker columnist Wolcott Gibbs in November 1936 titled “Time . . . Fortune . . . Life . . . Luce” mocked what became known as Timestyle: “Backward ran the sentences until the mind reeled,” wrote Gibbs, a sentence now so famously associated with Time that many people believe that it really appeared in the magazine.

Following Hadden’s untimely death at the tender age of thirty-one, Henry Robinson Luce went on to build a media conglomerate capped by three of the most successful magazines in American history—Time, Life, and Fortune. By the mid-1930s, he had transformed the magazine industry and recast it in his own image. No other press baron has ever approached his circulation totals, the international reach of his magazines, and the breadth of the content they covered. On the centenary of Time’s founding, therefore, it is worth looking back on the man who built the first and greatest magazine empire that America has ever witnessed.

The story of Time and Time, Inc., is the story of a man whose magazines became fixtures in the nation’s life. For his magazines purportedly rendered Americans “informed citizens” of current events globally as well as at home. Speaking of “home:” It is indeed hardly an exaggeration to say that Luce’s publications became part of the furniture of every doctor’s office, college dormitory lounge, and middle-class home in America—almost as if they were printed as attachments to the tops of American coffee tables.

Already by 1940 the Luce empire was vast in its reach and impressive in its diversity, with an audience of more than a hundred and thirty million. At its height in the 1960s and 1970s, it would encompass an audience of more than two hundred million, addressing readers across a range of fields related to current events—general news via Time, business news via Fortune, and athletic news via Sports Illustrated. Vivid and unforgettable illustrations brought the news to Life—or, rather, Life thus brought the news to Americans.

One might quibble that Luce—who seldom wrote for his magazines and rarely did much editing after the early 1930s—was more a businessman than a journalist. As Alan Brinkley emphasized in his definitive 2010 biography simply entitled, The Publisher, Luce did not so much influence public policy or political developments as he reshaped media formats and practices. He did not exert a great impact on national or world events such as the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, civil rights, and the Space Race.

Whether or not he was America’s “greatest journalist,” as some have argued, he was indisputably the nation’s greatest magazine publisher, and perhaps even publisher tout court, as Brinkley made clear. The subtitle of Brinkley’s book, Henry Luce and His American Century, alluded to Luce’s most famous, even visionary, essay “The American Century,” published in Life in February 4, 1941, and to the “Life and Times” impact that the publisher exerted throughout the decades. For Luce did nothing less than alter our consciousness of current events and our connection to them. As Brinkley put it, “Luce changed . . . the way we understand our world.”

Decline and (Free)fall of the Luce Empire

The centennial of Time represents not an apex but rather an anticlimax in its history. The fortieth anniversary was hosted by Luce himself and attended by 284 of the magazine’s cover story personalities; both it and the fiftieth were glitzy celebrations that gained international headlines. Reviewing the seventy-fifth in 1998, when one thousand cover-story invitees attended—including President and First Lady Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Muhammad Ali—one journalist suggested that it was “perhaps the largest ever gathering of the famed and the celebrated.”

Time’s 2023 commemoration, by contrast, has occasioned barely an acknowledgment. Oh, what a difference a quarter century makes! There will be no gala dinner, no star-studded guest list of invitees, no glowing headlines about circulation totals. The free fall of the Luce empire is clear for all to see in the diminished size and readership of its flagship publication. Is the fate of Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and lesser, now-defunct newsmagazines soon destined to be Time’s? One dares to imagine that the march of Time will end well before it comes close to slouching toward its next quarter-century anniversary.

The thought of a world without “Lucepapers”—as Time occasionally referred to the Luce Empire after Luce’s official retirement—remains near-unthinkable. To this day, American coffee tables have still not fully adjusted to the reality of “Lucepapers without Luce,” as The Publisher himself once phrased it. Yes, more than two generations after Luce’s death, on the centennial of his crowning achievement, the ongoing impact that his publications have exerted on Americans’ lives warrants notice­–as Time goes by.

John Rodden has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Intellectual Species: Evolution or Extinction? (2022).

Image: A graphic produced from the TIME 100th Anniversary Centennial magazine cover.